Learning from Poverty
Jason has helpfully reminded us why we should not romanticize locally grown, organic peasant food. But Design Observer has an excellent post on Indian craft that reminds us that we may have something to learn from the world’s poorest. Take, for example, the way India’s peasants — who have no time for idle leisure — decorate temporary huts made of dung in a way that gives them a dignity and individuality that is totally absent from most McMansions.
Design Observer (from which the above image comes) says this about the importance of hand crafts in promoting innovative thinking:
An axiom popular in design circles today, “making is thinking,” implies that experiential knowledge is the most direct stimulus to innovation. The process of acquiring experiential knowledge, however, also involves an intimate relationship between the maker and his material. The maker must be familiar not only with where, when and how to source his material, but also with the best ways of giving it form. Craft culture, patronizingly referred to as “small-scale industry” by those who deal in steel and cement, is thus particularly well suited to innovation. This innovation, we argue, is the result of design thinking born from the maker’s acts of processing and shaping raw materials in his hands. We call this mode of design thinking based in the experience of craft “subtle technology.” We further propose that the Indian craftsman, faced with the demands of a population that is continually testing the limits of its resources, is uniquely placed to present us with a model for sustainability and innovation for contemporary design practice.
The idea that “making is thinking” fits in rather nicely with the recent movement by Millinerd and the Front Porch’s James Matthew Wilson to revive aesthetic thinking grounded in the philosophy of thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. One of the claims made by Gilson is that artistic intelligence resides, so to speak, in the hand. Even if the artist has some idea that inspires the work, the final product is decisively shaped by manual intelligence. As James Matthew Wilson has noted, these ideas provide an account of dignified human work that runs counter to both Marxist materialism and capitalist indifference to the conditions of life and labor.
No doubt every one of the people who dwell in the dung huts would love to move into a McMansion. But as we seek improved living conditions for all, we should also ask what “peasant” culture has to teach us, not only about sustainability and artistic innovation, but about the nature and dignity of the human person.